Western pop may be celebrating the return of 80s cash cow Phil Collins and calling for the reunion of 90s moneyspinners Oasis, but Hong Kong is poised to mark the reformation of a truly pioneering act.
Huh! have reformed after more than 20 years apart, ostensibly to play this year’s Clockenflap music festival, being staged from November 25-27. It’s a regrouping of one of the seminal bands of the city’s indie rock scene, a scene that’s undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the emergence of new venues, new promoters and the waning popularity of the city’s prime musical export, Cantopop.
Huh! were at the vanguard of the city’s first wave of indie in the 1990s – a rock-based genre that appealed to audiences tired of the professionalism of mainstream pop. Their chunky, rough-at-the-edges guitar noise was in stark contrast to the slickly produced Cantonese pop that was enjoying its golden era at the same time.
Huh! didn’t make it big, and that contributed to the tensions that led to their split. But they left an indelible mark on the city’s music scene, so much so that their reunion for this week’s festival has been hailed as a highlight of an event that will also see DJ giants the Chemical Brothers and British alternative rockers Foals top the event’s multi-stage and very much international bills.
We hadn’t intended to sound different in the first place, but I’m happy for what we created
“We’d decided to play some music together since the beginning of 2015, but it turned difficult after a while and our conversation halted until Clockenflap asked us to play this year,” explains drummer Fei-jai (Fatboy) Ming. “So in a way, yes, it’s for Clockenflap.”
Between 1992 and 1997 they released five albums, including a movie soundtrack, of melodic power pop. But as contemporaries Oasis were headlining enormo-gigs at Knebworth in England and Blur were riding the crest of alternative pop’s wave, the Hong Kong four-piece were struggling to find gigs in a city that had difficulty producing much more than novelty rock acts.
For fans at that time, Huh!’s parochial success was a travesty. Unlike many other wannabe indie bands of the era, Huh! had a solid sound of their own, free of the twee pop sensibilities that typified many of their contemporaries. They mixed the jangly pop of their Britpop contemporaries and gutsy rockabilly without sounding contrived.
“We hadn’t intended to sound different in the first place, but I’m happy for what we created,” says frontman Tim Leung of the band’s legacy.
While Leung’s phrasing may have sounded awkward to the ears of English speakers, it possessed a fractured fragility that prefigured Libertine Peter Doherty’s cracked vocal by 20 years, and added to the emotional pull of the band’s spiky ballads. Check out 1995’s Traditional Summer Cycling Trip for a taster; it’s as good as blissed-out summer pop songs get.
Significantly, the band had a personality, which some – not entirely unfairly – compared to the Monkees. Famous for their onstage antics and practical jokes that could often descend into open fights they won fans by projecting a “one of us” aura.
“Huh! had good chemistry,” said Wong Chi-chung, former member Huh! contemporaries Endeavour and now a respected TV pundit and radio DJ. “They’re energetic. Solid.”
With a charismatic frontman in Leung the band was a gang of characters. Ming was the solid backbone of the band, bass player Ian was the band’s wit and guitarist and songwriter Edmund was the clown of the band, rarely giving a straight answer to any question.
“I spent my time talking behind the others’ backs,” Edmund jokes of the band’s years apart. “I have no idea what the others were doing but I was just enjoying tranquility at home with my plane models.”
He’s as sarcastic when asked about the band’s legacy, which has prompted many to dub them the godfathers of Hong Kong indie. “Put us on par with Leon Lai or Twins and I will be happy,” he says, referring to the cheesy veteran Cantopop crooner and saccharine teen-girl pop duo.
With band members unable to take seriously being in a band, it was no wonder they were as famous for their on-stage bust ups as their music. Splitting up was “a fairly common occurrence when I look back,” remembers Leung.
Now they’re back together, the four are hoping to take things further than where they left off.
“As long as we appreciate each other” we’ll keep going, says Ming, though the chances of hearing new material are scant. “I put 20 years of life experiences into playing our old tunes, that’s pretty cool for now.”